Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reflections of This High Holiday Season

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I had an email exchange with a dear friend and colleague. An organization to which we belong is preparing to engage in a discussion of guiding principles behind some of its practices. My friend articulated the specific steps that would guide this process of re-examination and asked for comments. I responded by sharing that I had once belonged to a 12-step group in which the discussion leader frequently used the phrase “the best of me connects with the best of you.” My friend's leadership in clearly articulating the respectful process to be used, I said, would allow the best in each of the participants in the discussions to rise to the occasion.

He responded by thanking me for my comments and then posed the following:

“I have to admit it sometimes feels harder to maintain my equanimity. Maybe I’m getting older and have been doing this too long??”

There have been several instances in the last year, where I’ve found myself asking the same question. The same – or similar – issues seem to recur in a variety of setting. The first time the situation comes up and I’m called upon to provide the guidance (generally in the form of establishing a process for the resolution of the issue), I’m able to do so with a sense of calmness and patience as we (the group and I) establish the ground rules for discourse, decision-making, resolution, whatever. By the fifth or sixth time a variation on the same theme occurs, a change in my response occurs:

  • I find myself making certain basic assumptions about the process and group interactions – and assume that we’re all starting at the same place.
  • I am less likely to explain the guiding principles that have informed and shaped the recommendations I’m making.
  • My explanations become a little more clipped – my tone a little more abrupt.
  • I feel a sense of weariness, frustration, sometimes futility - and I begin to wonder if it's worth it.

And, like my friend, I begin to wonder if the difficulty in retaining my sense of balance is because I’m getting older and have been doing this too long?

So, his question rang true.

Coming, as it did, right before the beginning of the ten days of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’ve found myself reflecting on it frequently. I didn’t answer then, but here’s what I’d say now:

“Too long” is hard to define. I think there comes a point at which the guidance we’re being asked to provide is so second-nature to us that we forget that many of the people we work with have not reached that point of automaticity in their problem-solving responses. Especially when we end up working with the same group of people (or similar groups of people), we expect that because we’ve laid out the information before – they get it. They remember. They’ve seen it work. Our street “cred” is good. It hardly bears repeating.

What we forget is that even when the organizations are the same, the people we’re interacting with at this point are not. They may not have participated in earlier problem-solving opportunities – either because they weren’t part of the group then, or because it wasn’t “their” issue.

What we forget is that in many environments or cultures (workplace or volunteer), the goal is “winning” – not necessarily coming up with a solution that “everyone can live with.”

What we forget is that often the goal of so-called “discussions” is really to convince others of the rightness of our viewpoint, instead of encouraging individuals to really listen and hear what the other is saying.

Perhaps part of the solution might be to recognize what we forget. Another part might be to try and approach repeating situations as new. Yet a third part might involve finding someone safe to discretely vent to – without a safety valve, it’s hard to prevent frustration from seeping out. Another suggestion might be to remind ourselves that our approaches have resulted in positive outcomes in the past – and that the guidance we provide helps keep the discussion focused on the issues instead of deteriorating into personalities.

And part of it might be forgiving ourselves when we feel frustrated or impatient. And remembering that feeling impatient is different from acting impatiently.

May the year ahead be filled with blessings and growth for all of us.

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